San Jose mayor one step closer to suing over overnight trains
Photo courtesy of Union Pacific Railroad

In an effort to combat the blaring horns of trains that have been waking San Jose residents from slumber, Mayor Sam Liccardo, along with four of his council colleagues, have signed on to explore legal options against Union Pacific Railroad and consider designating the land along the rail line as public open space.

According to a newly released memo from Liccardo and Councilmembers Sergio Jimenez, Raul Peralez, Dev Davis and Maya Esparza, the group wants to explore options for filing a lawsuit in the court or before the federal Surface Transportation Board. The lawsuit could allege that the railroad has been a nuisance, that it violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not keeping the area clean from graffiti and blight or that it violated constitutional and state law by not notifying homeless residents in the area of an encampment abatement on May 9, among other wrongdoings.

“For many years, UPRR’s neglect of its obligations to abate nuisances and to prevent trespass on its rail lines has earned it the deep enmity of residents living in neighborhoods surrounding its infrastructure,” Liccardo, Jimenez, Peralez, Davis and Esparza wrote in the memo.

The councilors would also like the city manager to bring back amendments to the general plan that could change the land use designation of the Union Pacific Railroad Corridor to public open space. The change could make way for a rail-to-trail conversion – doing away with the rail line completely and creating a trail connecting the Guadalupe River Park with downtown neighborhoods.

Ongoing discussions

Since the Union Pacific Railroad implemented its new operating plan, a move lawmakers said would help save the company money, more noisy trains are being run overnight and city officials are trying to work with the Union Pacific executives to meditate the situation.

Liccardo, along with Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, spoke with Union Pacific Railroad CEO Lance Fritz on May 11. According to the memo, Fritz told Liccardo and Lofgren that the railroad decided to switch to nighttime operations, “to create a service product that is more appealing to our customers.”

One of those customers, the construction materials company, Graniterock, told the city in a April 19 letter that they hadn’t requested a change.

“(It) was not done at our suggestion or request,” wrote Graniterock CEO Tom Squeri. “There is no advantage to Graniterock to the time – daytime vs. nighttime deliveries.”

Fritz did not tell Liccardo and Lofgren which customers requested nighttime service. In addition, Fritz and Union Pacific Railroad executives have “revealed no inclination to accommodate” the concerns of downtown residents, according to the memo. Instead, they’ve suggested that the city implement quiet zones.

In anticipation of the 2019-2020 budget, Peralez proposed that the city spend $5.5 million creating quiet zones along the Warm Springs Subdivision corridor. The plan would require the city to improve 14 grade crossings from Montgomery Street through Japantown to Horning Street.

Thursday’s memo from councilors, however, questioned the safety of quiet zones, citing a 2000 study by the Federal Railroad Administration. The study found a 62 percent increase in accidents at the crossings where train horns were not allowed. But a follow up study in 2011 and 2013 showed no additional risk.

“We have to know more before deciding that local taxpayers should pick up the tab for Union Pacific Railroad’s exploitative business decisions,” the councilors wrote.

Besides noise, blight has been a serious concern among residents and city officials. The rail line along Monterey Road has been particularly troublesome as companies like Sims Metal Management, Off-Sites Records Management and Dan Caputo Company have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars cleaning up and installing fences.

“It is my obligation as a councilmember to do everything I can to better the lives of residents in San Jose,” Jimenez told San José Spotlight on Thursday. “I take the obligation seriously and have reached the conclusion that legal action is the only path forward after years of trying to work collaboratively with UP. They are like a bully who doesn’t respond to anything but strength and in this direction we are showing strength and support for the  thousands of residents within San Jose.”

Liccardo and Peralez will hold a community meeting on the issue at 6:30 p.m., June 5 at Northside Community Center. A representative from Union Pacific Railroad will also be in attendance.

Contact Grace Hase at grace@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @grace_hase on Twitter.

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